Blog Feed

Church of the Nativity

Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David.  However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was.  It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years.  It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.

Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity.  This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace.  The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena.  However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration.  The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church.  When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.”  However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.

When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways.  The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space.  Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations.  Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling.  To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary.  According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus.  However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that.  Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church. 

Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important.  It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20).  However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried.  Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.

Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.

I realized that the only photo I took while I was in Bethlehem was of this coffee shop, whose name I found amusing.

Sources and Further Reading

“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Lidman, Melanie. “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow over Christmas.” National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas (accessed November 30, 2019).

“Siege of Bethlehem.” Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html (accessed November 30, 2019).

“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Hanukkah in Jerusalem

In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday.  Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store.  Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound).  However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday.  The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.

The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas.  It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime.  However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar.  It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)

Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah.  On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.

While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”).  Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background!  I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.

A Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2010.

The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected.  The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel.  Some of it is history, and some of it is not.  Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs). 

The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods.  In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it.  However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks.  After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived. 

After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple.  The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.)  The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition.  According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit.  They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day.  However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply.  That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days.  Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple.  Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches.  For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.

A common Hanukkah tradition among children is to play with a spin top called a “dreidel.” Historically, the four letters found on a dreidel stood for the phrase “A great miracle happened THERE.” However, Israeli dreidels now say, “A great miracle happened HERE” On the left is an American dreidel, with the Hebrew letter “shin,” which stands for the word “there.” On the right is an Israeli dreidel with the Hebrew letter “peh,” which stands for the word “here.”

Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil.  Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States.  This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones.  For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn.  Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily. 

Sufganiyot at Roladin Bakery in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Hanukkah.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed November 30, 2019).

Rude, Emelyn. “Why Jelly Doughnuts Are Eaten During Hanukkah.” Time, December 7, 2015. https://time.com/4138749/sufganiyot-jelly-doughnut-hanukkah-history/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Auditorium Theatre

On December 9, 2019, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago turned 130 years old.  Built in 1889 by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the theater was the first home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the early Chicago opera companies.  Today, the Theatre still hosts ballets, orchestras, musicians, etc.  Additionally, because of its interesting history, and more likely because Louis Sullivan is considered a famous architect, the Theatre frequently offers tours.  Most of the people on my small tour were French tourists who did not know each other, which makes me suspect that architecture receives a larger emphasis there than in the United States.

I went on the 1 ½ hour tour of the Auditorium Theatre with an extremely knowledgeable guide.  He made it more interesting because of his personal connection with the Theatre.  After World II, in 1945, Roosevelt University came into existence.  It purchased the Theatre building, but did not open it to the public.  However, in 1960, the University began raising funds to restore the Theatre.  During the 1960s, my tour guide heard about the fundraising campaign and asked his mother if they could contribute.  They did, and he then received a letter thanking him for being one of the youngest donors.  As a reward, he was given a personal tour of the Theatre.  In 1967, when the Theatre reopened to the public, he and his mother attended the performance.  He has seen every show offered there since.

That was the history of the Theatre during the second half of the 20th century, however, the first half is also interesting.  Although Adler and Sullivan did not build the first skyscraper, they are considered pioneers in the skyscraper’s development.  Additionally, they helped influence future architects, such as the more famous Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked under Sullivan at the beginning of his career.

Louis Sullivan is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

When the Theatre opened in 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison came to its opening.  The Theatre was considered grand at the time, as it seated 4,200 and had a 10-story hotel above it.  Its reputation helped Chicago win the bid to host the 1893 World Fair.  Some of the famous people to perform or speak at the Auditorium Theatre have been President Theodore Roosevelt, Civil Rights activist Booker T. Washington, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix.  The Theatre somehow held a few baseball games during its early years, and during World War II, the government used it for U.S. soldiers, and a large portion of the auditorium became bowling alleys.   

The two most fascinating aspects of the Theatre to me were the lighting and the sinking floor.  Because electricity was new at the time that the Theatre was built, the auditorium contains 3,500 lightbulbs total.  It was a great way to show off this new invention.  Originally, the entire Theatre used carbon lightbulbs, however, they are not as bright as the bulbs used today, so only the main part of the auditorium uses them now, while the hallways use more standard lightbulbs.  Carbon lightbulbs actually last longer than the current ones, but I cannot remember the number of years. 

Chicago used to be a swampy area, so the ground is not solid.  The architects knew this and took precautions when building the Theatre’s foundation.  However, over the years, the perimeter of the building has sunk deeper in comparison to the rest of the building.  This was especially noticeable in the Theatre’s lobby, where the ground sloped downward near the entrance.  Additionally, during the tour, we went to the top balcony, which apparently leans more toward the stage than it used to.  The Theatre does not sell those seats as often, unless an event is extremely popular.  In the past, African Americans were only permitted to sit in the balcony seats, and not in the rest of the Theatre.  In regards to the sinking ground the guide said that the building has stopped sinking, and remains safe.  Hopefully, that is true. 

A standard tour at the Auditorium Theatre currently costs $12.  Additionally, the tours are typically only offered on weekdays at unusual times.  This is probably so as not to interfere with the Theatre’s scheduled performances. 

Sources and Further Reading

“Architecture.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/architecture/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Historic Theatre Tours.” Auditorium Theatre. https://tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org/production/2677/19-20-public-theatre-tours/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Origins & Stats.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/origins-stats/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Timeline.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/timeline/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

Samaritan Museum

Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37.  According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other.  In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem.  He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.

There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv.  Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim.  In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans.  Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join.  Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967.  West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River. 

While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique.  First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height.  Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them.  For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again.  This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates.  The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria.  The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.

While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi.  The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians.  Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi.  These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians.  Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land.  That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible.  Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world.  When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.

There are not many artifacts at the Samaritan Museum, but the most noteworthy is the Samaritan Torah scroll, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, and written in a language related to ancient Hebrew. It has three handles, representing the three tribes that the Samaritans claim to descend from.

What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.”  Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it.  At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him.  Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed.  Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans.  The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well.  In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim).  Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C.  A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.

There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews.  For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year.  Visitors are actually welcome to watch.  Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice.  Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts.  However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.

A Jewish mezuzah on the doorpost of a home.
A Samaritan mezuzah above a doorway on Mount Gerizim.
[I failed to take a photo of a Samaritan mezuzah, so this photo is not attributed to me. It is from Wiki Commons, meaning that it is in public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mezuzah_IMG_2125.JPG]

Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Nablus.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nablus (accessed December 2, 2019).

Feldman, Rachel. “Diving Deep into Mezuzah Customs and Lore.” Judaica WebStore. September 22, 2019. https://blog.judaicawebstore.com/judaicapedia-what-is-a-mezuzah/ (accessed December 2, 2019).

Ireton, Sean. “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-Religious Minority in the Twenty First Century.” Anthrobase. 2003. http://www.anthrobase.com/Txt/I/Ireton_S_01.htm (accessed December 3, 2019).

“Mount Gerizim.” Bible Walks. February 23, 2018. https://biblewalks.com/sites/MountGerizim.html (accessed December 2, 2019).

“Samaritan Museum.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/samaritanmuseumhargrizim/ (accessed December 4, 2019).

Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.

Jamestown

Because it was recently Thanksgiving, I want to write about Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States.  Although not directly part of the Thanksgiving story, the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 paved the way for the English settlers, known as the Pilgrims, to established Plymouth Colony in 1620.  (Thanksgiving originated from the latter group’s story.)

English males arrived in what is now known as Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, because the English were competing with the Spanish, who had already settled in different parts of the “New World.”  They named their settlement “Jamestown” in honor of their King, James I.  This was the same James after whom the famous King James Bible translation of 1611 was named.  The settlement was on a peninsula near the Atlantic coast.

Jamestown’s history includes a rocky relationship with the Native American tribe, the Powhatans, who were already living there.  The most famous Powhatan is probably Pocahontas, because of the writings of one of Jamestown’s future governors, Captain John Smith.  According to him, Pocahontas did not allow her father, the Powhatan chief, to kill him after he was captured.  John Smith was a prolific writer, but he was also an exaggerator, so nobody knows how much of his writings are fact or fiction.  Pocahontas eventually married another Jamestown settler, John Rolfe, but she became ill and died around the age of 21, while visiting England with him.

The English were ill-equipped, so many died of starvation and disease at Jamestown.  Additionally, cultural clashes with the Powhatans led to fighting between the two groups.  However, once life became more stable for them, English women started joining the men.  In 1619, the English brought African captives to Jamestown.  They became the first recorded Africans to live in North America.

If you visit Jamestown, you have the option of seeing two sites.  The first is Historic Jamestowne, which is owned by the National Park Service and contains the original site of the English settlement.  Today, it is primarily an archaeological site, because not much of the site is still visible above the ground.  However, there is a museum there that houses objects that archaeologists have found at the site.

The second site is about a five-minute drive away from Historic Jamestowne, and is called Jamestown Settlement.  Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum.  That means that the site replicates what Jamestown would have looked like in the 1600s, and has historic reenactors walking around the site, providing tours and answering questions.  The reenactors are dressed as both English settlers and Native Americans.  The Native American reenactor that I met was actually of Native American decent.  The site also includes replicas of the three ships that brought the first English settlers to Jamestown.  Visitors can go inside of them.

Jamestown Settlement is pricier than Historic Jamestowne, but does include duo-ticket deal options for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which is owned by the same organization as Jamestown Settlement.  This museum is thirty minutes away from Jamestown and is in Yorktown, where the Revolutionary War (the U.S.’s war for independence) ended.  Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to visit that museum.  However, I believe that they do Revolutionary War reenactments there.

Jamestown’s importance in history is evident by the fact that it paved the way for the eventual English domination of most of North America.  The English legacy still lives on, not only by how it influenced the governments of both Canada and the United States, but also in the fact that English is the primary language spoken in North America today.  However, Spanish settlers clearly won dominance in Mexico, Central, and South America, as Spanish is the primary language spoken in those areas today (Brazil, which speaks Portuguese, is a notable exception.).

P. S. Although this is completely unrelated, I wanted to mention an update. In a previous post, I wrote about how I discovered a letter from 1933 in a book that I was cataloging. Well, I was able to track down the grandson of the letter’s recipient, and return it to him! https://arkeh.travel.blog/2019/11/17/library-detective-work/

Sources and Further Reading

“Jamestown Settlement.” Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. https://www.historyisfun.org/jamestown-settlement/ (accessed November 29, 2019).

“A Short History of Jamestown.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/a-short-history-of-jamestown.htm (accessed November 29, 2019).

National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial

Unfortunately, many genocides occurred during the twentieth century.  One of them was the Cambodian Genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979.  Approximately, 2 million people died.  In the United States, Chicago is the only place that currently has a memorial to this Genocide (although Long Beach, California is currently working on one).  This is interesting, since most Cambodians in the United States actually live in California and Massachusetts, not Chicago. 

Chicago’s National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial opened in 2004, but falls under the authority of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, which was founded in 1976.  This organization was founded during the Genocide, with the purpose of assisting Cambodian refugees who came to resettle in Chicago.  Today, the organization provides healthcare assistance and community programming for the approximately 5,000 Cambodians living in the Chicago area.

The Cambodian Heritage Museum is open to the public whenever the Cambodian Association of Illinois has its regular office hours.  However, it does not hurt to call ahead of time.  Unlike many museums, your participation is essential during your visit.  All visits include a tour, in which your guide describes the Cambodian community and Genocide based on what you already know and want to know.  Artifacts do not play a major role in the Museum.  Instead, they are used as ways to discuss different aspects of the Genocide.

When I visited the Cambodian Heritage Museum, the associate director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, who is also the main overseer of the Museum, provided me with a personal tour.  First, she had me watch a brief video about the Cambodian Genocide, and then we went through the exhibit together.  Although she is one of the few staff members at the Cambodian Association of Illinois who is not Cambodian, her passion and love for the community is quite evident.  She was a wonderful tour guide, and provided me with a very personal and informative experience.  Prior to my visit, I hardly knew anything about the Genocide, so she provided a very helpful overview.

The Cambodian Genocide is linked with the Vietnam War.  During that time, Communist forces from Vietnam spread their ideology into neighboring Cambodia.  Then, a Communist regime, also known as the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia, and the Genocide soon followed.  Many people were murdered outright, especially Cambodia’s intellectuals and artists.  By removing the intellectuals of a society, a government removes its strongest resistance.  However, that action indirectly caused the deaths of many more people.  If a country has murdered all of its doctors, who is going to treat illnesses appropriately?  In order to make the country equal, the Khmer Rouge tried to make everyone become farmers, and brought many people from the cities into the rural areas.  Many more deaths occurred due to lack of food, the poor conditions of the newly-created labor camps, and the outright murder of dissenters.

At the very back of the Cambodian Heritage Museum is the actual memorial to the Genocide.  On it are etched the names of the dead family and friends of Cambodian refugees now living in the United States.  During my tour, I was told how, in Cambodia, most memorials to the Genocide are rooms with thousands of human skulls.  However, for this Chicago Memorial, the community did not want to recreate the horror of what occurred, but wanted to provide a calming environment to commemorate the tragedy.

Sources and Further Reading

“About.” Cambodian Association of Illinois. https://cambodianassociation.org/about (accessed November 23, 2019).

“Cambodia.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://www.ushmm.org/genocide-prevention/countries/cambodia (accessed November 23, 2019).

“History.” National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial. https://www.cambodianmuseum.org/what-we-do (accessed November 23, 2019).

Kopsa, Andy. “How Cambodia’s Day of Remembrance for Genocide Victims Has Always Been Complicated.” Time. May 20, 2019. https://time.com/5591061/cambodia-remembrance-day-history/ (accessed November 23, 2019).

Rhee, Nissa. “The Cambodian Association of Illinois Celebrates 40 Years by Looking Ahead.” Chicago Reader. May 26, 2016. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/cambodian-association-illinois-khmer-rouge-kompha-seth/Content?oid=22237231 (accessed November 23, 2019).

Library Detective Work

Instead of writing about a specific library or museum, today, I want to write about how librarians can sometimes do detective work.  I have had experience overseeing book donations and cataloging the books of an unprocessed library.  For both tasks, I have always tried to scout out any books that seem potentially significant.  I have done this by removing papers that are often inserted inside of books, or by inspecting older books, to see if there is anything noteworthy about them.  Several times, this has led to some fun finds, which have sometimes required further detective work.

My favorite book donation mystery was a Bible that I ended up opening, even though it did not look special on the outside.  Inside, I noticed a printed inscription by Franklin Roosevelt about the importance of the Bible, which was dated January 25, 1941.  It was clearly a mass-produced military Bible, but it was confusing, since the United States did not enter World War II until December of 1941.  This caused me to investigate further.  I then learned that the United States Army had several large drafts prior to its entry into WWII, because it knew that U.S. involvement in the War was imminent.  Of course, I had to contact the donor after I discovered this Bible.  Sure enough, the donors did have family who served in WWII.  They had not realized that the Bible was from WWII, so were excited to have it returned to them.

Another interesting donation mystery was solved by one of my colleagues.  As he was going through some donations, he noticed a military bookplate inside the front cover of a book.  After further investigation, he discovered that this particular bookplate meant that the book was once part of the many military libraries that the ALA (American Library Association) created for U.S. soldiers during World War I, both overseas and at military bases in the U.S.  This particular book dated to 1912, which means that it was new during WWI (1914 to 1918).

My final library detective story did not require that I investigate the provenance of a book that I was cataloging, but I did anyway, because that is what makes monotonous work (which cataloging can sometimes be) fun. 

The book that I was cataloging was volume 1 of The Jewish People, Past and Present, published by Jewish Encyclopedic Handbooks in 1946.  Inside this book, I found a letter.  Most of the time, the papers I find inside of books are receipts, bookmarks, or, sometimes, newspaper clippings.  Because this was a letter, I knew that I should read it before throwing it away, just in case it mentioned something significant in regards to the book that I was cataloging.  The letter’s envelope did not have a postage stamp, but did have a postmark that said, “Century of Progress World’s Fair Chicago 1933.”  (Chicago has hosted two World’s Fairs, one in 1893 and the other in 1933.)  Another postmark dated the envelope to “May 17, 1933.”  If the envelope was dated to 1933, that means that the recipient must have thought that his letter was worth saving, since he still had it by 1946, which is when the book that I found the letter in was written.

Overall, the contents of the letter were not particularly interesting.  In it, the writer explained how his business was doing well.  He then asked the recipient to let him know when his graduation was, so that he could try to attend.  I immediately came to the conclusion that this letter was from a father to his son away at college.  I then read the names on the envelope.  Both the sender and the recipient had the same last name, which confirmed my theory.  Furthermore, the sender had a Chicago address, while the recipient had a Champaign, Illinois address.  Since the University of Illinois is in Champaign, and since the sender mentioned a graduation, I guessed that the recipient was a college student there. 

The sender used his own personal letterhead, which said that he was an architect.  This piqued my interest, so I decided to expand my investigation to the internet.  Sure enough, the one search result for his name showed me that a house he built is currently for sale in Illinois.

I then proceeded to Google the recipient’s name.  The result was a University of Illinois graduation list from 1933, which showed that the recipient received a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture that year.  I then concluded that the recipient decided to become an architect because his father was one.

Searching the recipient’s name also brought me a link to the history of a Chicago-area synagogue.  Since I found the letter in a book about Jewish history, this did not surprise me.  I learned that one of the art pieces in the synagogue was dedicated in memory of the recipient, after he deceased, because he was a member of that synagogue.

Finally, my search led me to the 1930 United States census, which is freely accessible to the public, since all U.S. censuses become public after 70 years (next year, the 1950 census will be made public).  This final search showed me that the sender and recipient of the letter were actually brothers, not father and son!

Isn’t it amazing how much you can learn about strangers just from one letter?

Since this post includes war books, here is a photo of a 1943 book I found while cataloging. It mentions how books were made of poorer paper quality during WWII to help the war effort.

*November 29, 2019 Update: I was able to track down the grandson of the recipient of the 1933 letter and return it to him!

Sources and Further Reading

“1917.” American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/aboutala/1917 (accessed November 16, 2019).

“Meeting of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, June 16, 1933, with Emergency Meeting of June 27, 1933.” University of Illinois Archives. https://archives.library.illinois.edu/erec/University%20Archives/0101802/02_volume_sections/1932-1934/14_meeting_1933-06-16.pdf (accessed November 16, 2019).

“United States Census, 1930.” www.familysearch.org (accessed November 16, 2019).